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SDN and OpenFlow may hold the key to improving cloud automation

Cloud automation is critical to provide optimal service delivery in a highly elastic model, and software-defined networking (SDN) may be the glue that holds it together.

As organizations graduate from only experimenting in the cloud to entrusting it with more core apps and services, cloud providers need to reconcile the complexities that come with managing a more dynamic and massively scalable service delivery model.

On-demand cloud services are built on complicated infrastructures comprising both physical and virtual resources that may span multiple clouds. These environments need to be configured precisely to support efficient and reliable service delivery. Cloud automation, specifically in network and data center configuration and management, is critical to providing optimal service delivery in a highly elastic model. And software-defined networking (SDN) may very well be the glue that repairs all of these challenges.

The case for cloud automation

Cloud providers need tools to automate everything from configuring servers and provisioning new connections to moving workloads between and among clouds based on changing capacity requirements. Removing the manual interventions in these processes will improve efficiency and reduce providers' operating costs.

Through technologies like OpenFlow, SDN may likely become a big enabler of cloud automation.

Processes that are good candidates for cloud automation are those that involve fairly standard elements that can be mapped out in a workflow. These include processes like network configuration and change management; server lifecycle management; application deployment; middleware and database management; router and switch provisioning and management; and some elements of security that involve tasks that can be repeated in other instances. 

Cloud providers can develop their own scripting tools to automate the tasks associated with a given workflow and alleviate the manual steps associated with completing a process. There are also commercial tools that automate networking services like DNS, DHCP and IP address management in addition to standard network management processes like VLAN provisioning. Additionally, cloud can use these tools to isolate network management issues and automate the remediation process.

By eliminating the manual components of routine functions like password management or the distribution of a standard virtual machine (VM) image, a cloud provider can accelerate service delivery, reduce manual support costs and limit the risk of human error. Cloud automation tools also enable providers to better manage complex, virtualized environments by applying standard, predefined and pretested processes.

There are other emerging techniques and architectures that help automate higher layer and more dynamic functions, such as the movement of workloads between and among clouds. SDN is one of the most prominent examples of an approach that supports automation in network and data center provisioning -- and it's an approach that could be optimized for a cloud environment.

Using SDN to automate cloud provisioning and management

SDN architecture extracts the control plane from the physical network topology to create an environment where switches, routers and other networking devices take their forwarding guidance from an all-knowing, centralized controller -- rather than each device individually making those decisions on its own. Because an SDN controller monitors capacity and resource requirements, it can be programmed to move workloads between resources based on capacity.

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Through technologies like OpenFlow, SDN may likely become a big enabler of cloud automation. Cloud providers could use SDN to automate the cloud provisioning process so that resources, including bandwidth, could be turned up and down immediately, as required. For example, an OpenFlow-based load balancer could automatically move traffic among VMs or even between disparate clouds, depending on the "available capacity" data fed in real-time to its library.

By design, these controller-based applications are highly adaptable, scalable and more efficient than conventional appliances that rely on more static functions to complete processes. SDN might be a good fit for both intra- and inter-cloud workload transmissions. So, in addition to being useful for automating the provisioning and management of resources within a cloud, cloud brokers could also employ SDN-based technology to move traffic between clouds, based on resource availability.

Having a standardized way to automate functions like the movement of cloud-based workloads in a multivendor or multiprovider environment has an undeniable appeal. Although SDN is still maturing, it has the potential to act as an interface between resources, and several IT vendors are introducing or working on products based on OpenFlow and network virtualization. VMware has also thrown its considerable weight behind the technology with its July 2012 acquisition of SDN startup Nicira. And service providers such as NTT Communications are rolling out cloud-based services that use OpenFlow.

Whichever techniques a provider uses to industrialize its processes, cloud automation is crucial to supporting the kind of orchestration that is essential to optimize cloud service delivery. This orchestration, which unites multiple automated processes in a seamless manner, is the cornerstone of an effective cloud service.

About the author: Amy Larsen DeCarlo is a principal analyst at Current Analysis, where her research focuses on assessing managed and cloud-based data center and security services.

This was last published in October 2012

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